Splits training

There was a comment on the Splits entry that I’d like to use as this week’s post. Heidi writes

Do you recommend a particular approach for beginning training for splits. Are there other stretches that should be done first. Should a student demonstrate flexibility in other ways (e.g. be able to touch her toes) before trying to do the splits? I’ve seen many students who are far from being “all the way down” in the splits bend one or both knees. Should this be discouraged?

My reply:
Heidi, The reason they bend one of the knees is to try and get down a little farther – a totally natural response. I would separate the elements of the splits in my training. Meaning… work to increase the flexibility of the hamstrings – which allow the front leg to go lower – and also work the flexibility of the hip flexors, which allow the back leg to slide farther back without tipping the pelvis forward.

For the hip flexors doing daily lunge stretches is key. You can do them on the ground, standing or sitting in a chair (my favorite) I have a youtube video demonstrating 3 ways, including a passive hanging stretch. The chair lunge is not on their but simply imagine sitting on a chair in a lunge position and lifting up the front of your pelvis to increase the stretch along the front of the back leg that is extended.

As far as hamstring flexibility a quick and dirty way to check for tight hamstrings is to have the dancer sitting on the floor with both legs straight and together in front of them. Are they easily able to sit all the way up on their pelvis? If they are rolled onto the back of their pelvis you can suspect their hamstrings are tight.

My favorite way of stretching the hamstrings is in standing and putting one leg on a low enough surface to keep the pelvis in neutral and upright. If they have tight hamstrings to begin with and put their leg on the barre – they are going to be tucked under (rolled back like they did on the floor) and won’t get a good stretch out of it.

Once they have their leg on a surface, let’s say a kitchen chair, they would flex easily forward keeping their pelvis and spine in alignment. Don’t round forward with your back, just tilt at the hips. This should give a good stretch to the hamstring area. Don’t forget to keep the pelvis facing forward as you are tilting, as many dancers cheat slightly by letting the pelvis rotate towards their standing leg as they are stretching – which is exactly the problem they are trying to overcome in their splits.

Consistency in their stretching is key – especially in the growing years. If your students aren’t getting the results they want from their stretching you might need to investigate whether they have tight fascia somewhere else in the body that is influencing their efforts. Reread the post on flexibility where I talk about this.

Finally – I want to let you know that I now have Anatomy Coloring Pages for the young dancer available in the store. They are in a pdf format that you do multiple copies of for your younger students.

The muscles that are included in the coloring pages are:
1. rotators (turnout muscles)
2. Quadriceps
3. Hamstrings
4. Iliopsoas
5. Adductor (inner thigh)
6. Abductor (lateral hip)
7. Abdominals
8. Soleus (deeper calf muscle that determines depth of demi plié)
9. Gastrocnemius
10. Deltoid (that lifts the arm)

Each page demonstrates the action of the muscle, has an insert of what the actual muscle looks like, and at the bottom of each page is a sentence describing the action in simple terms. Perfect for the youngest (6 – 8 yrs) to begin learning about their body!

The price is right – only $9.95 – so check them out!

Warm regards,
Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Training for splits

Training For Splits

#1: I have my splits, but they aren’t straight (my hips aren’t straight). I’m wondering; is it necessary for your hips to be straight in the splits to be able to do good kicks and stuff? Or is it okay to not have straight hips in ballet?
Thanks!!! Talya

#2: I am a professional ballroom dancer and teacher who primarily competes in West Coast Swing. I have been working for over a year now to be able to do a split. The type of split I’m referring to is either left leg in front with right leg going back or vice versa. I find that I can get down quite far but there is still about two inches between the floor and me. Can you suggest exercises or stretches that will enable me to do a full split? I maintain a daily Pilates and yoga practice so I’m quite flexible.
I’ve been reading your newsletter for quite some time now and really enjoy it. Thank you, Ellany

#3: What are some good stretches for a good or high extension and leaps? My splits are fine but my extensions and leaps (jete) need some work.
Please help! La Precious

Deb’s Answer:
These three questions are speaking to the same issue of flexibility versus strength, and so I put them together. For Ellany, she is missing the last few inches of her splits, and for La Precious she has her splits, but needs work on her leaps and extensions. Talya’s question fits right in because of the misconception that you can keep your hips square doing the splits – which you can’t.

Let’s start first talk about square hips. Keeping your pelvis facing forward while going into the splits is a focus. The picture of a flexible gymnast in the splits has the back leg more parallel than what a dancer has in arabesque or a split leap. The dancer is working towards a turned out (and high) back leg which requires good front of the hip flexibility to allow the leg to go behind. The more you can keep the pelvis square – or facing forward – the easier it is to determine the path for the two legs when they open into the splits – certainly important if you are working on a balance beam, but slightly less so in the dance class. So Talya, the short answer to your question is it okay not to have square hips in ballet is yes – and – when you are doing battements or splits leaps focus your efforts on keep the pelvis facing forward – don’t get discouraged if you can’t maintain a perfectly square pelvis – and continue your stretching.

Now let’s talk some about flexibility. Since Ellany does yoga and Pilates on a regular basis I know that she is stretching regularly. The most basic analysis of the splits are that the front let have a strong stretch happening in the hamstrings and buttock muscles, while the back leg is stretching the front of the hip. The front leg should have the knee facing the ceiling and the back leg will either have the knee facing down to the ground, which stretches the hip flexors more or the knee facing to the side, which stretches the inner thigh muscles more.

I would have you first see what the natural inclination of your back leg is as you go down into the splits. Do you want to turn your leg out? Then focus on increasing and deepening your hip flexor stretches. Does your leg stay nicely behind and facing the floor? In which case, focus for a while on increasing the flexibility of your adductor, or inner thigh muscles.

The more pitched forward your pelvis is when you are going down in the splits, the more likely the hip flexors are keeping you off the ground. That may also give you a clue whether it is the hip flexors (usually the iliopsoas) or inner thigh muscles.

The last question I would ask of you is where do you feel the resistance to deepening the splits? If you don’t feel much muscular resistance to the lowering in the splits, then you might look at having some myofascial massage work done to release tightness in other areas along the front or back line that may be getting in your way.

With LaPrecious feeling that she has her flexibility and splits down, but unable to make her leaps more spectacular, that may be a deficiency in strength. More often I see weakness in the hip extensors (hamstrings) over the hip flexors (quads). Try lifting your back leg up more quickly sometimes makes a difference. Dancers are often overly focused on the front leg and lifting it u p high. The back leg is doing a very fast battement as soon as it pushes off (as in a grand jeté).

If your back leg doesn’t get as high as you’d like in your leaps, then focus on strengthening the extensors of the hip, the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
You can do that by placing a small weight on one leg and doing back tendus or dégagés. You could also use a theraband and do the same thing by looping it around your foot and a support such as a heavy chair or sturdy pole or column.

Increasing your strength or your flexibility doesn’t happen overnight and consistency is key.

Increasing Flexibility

Greetings!
Hope everyone is keeping warm! One quick announcement before we get into the newsletter.

I have created two hip flexibility assessment forms. One is a form that you can duplicate (in case you want to test your students) and mark your results down, and the second document explains how to test for your turnout, hamstring flexibility as well as iliopsoas, quadriceps and ITB flexibility.

I will send you these 2 forms in exchange for a product testimonial. I would like to post on my website more specific testimonials about how you have used any of my products – or a specific aha or insight that was gained through a piece of information. (Which could include information you have received from the Dancing Smart Newsletter) For example, writing your story of how your arabesque improved with doing an exercise you learned from me – or how you put the anatomical pieces together on an issue that you were struggling with.

Send your testimonial to Deborah@thebodyseries.com, and I will send you the 2 forms as a thank you. I will be posting the testimonials on my website and will identify you by your first name only – or initials, whatever you feel most comfortable with. If you would like to identify your city and state or studio (if you are a teacher) that’s fine too, just let me know.

Thank you! And now to the newsletter…

Increasing Flexibility

In this newsletter I want to talk about flexibility in general and then specifically stretching your hamstrings.

Most dancers think of flexibility as the length of muscles and the range of motion they can create at a joint. This is what gives the dancer that beautiful line of an arabesque or the height of a développé.

Flexibility needs to be balanced with strength in order to be able to execute all those beautiful dance moves – so ultimately dancers are working towards the best muscle tone they can have – which is a muscle that is both flexible and strong.

I have dancers tell me they are stretching consistently and still not feeling like they are gaining flexibility. What else can influence your flexibility?

One answer is fascia. I’ve talked about in many previous newsletters how fascia is connective tissue. There are different layers of fascia but the anyone who has bought chicken breasts at the grocery store and then trimmed it has seen the whitish sheet of tissue covering the meat (which is the chicken’s muscle) This fascia helps to keep the muscles divided and protected. Sometimes this fascia can get knotted or adhere to other tissue which influences the whole fascial band and can create pain or challenges to your flexibility. This is where myofascial massage is useful. Myofascial means fascia related to the muscles and it is a different type of massage than just deep tissue. The focus is on releasing pulls and tensions specifically in the fascia.

There are sheets of fascia throughout your body. Tom Meyers has written a fantastic book called Anatomy Trains that goes into great detail about all the different lines of fascia. The fascial line I’d like you to look at today is the posterior back line. You can look at a picture of the muscles that are connected by this one fascial line by going to (cut and paste into a new tab or page of your browser – so you can keep reading!)

http://www.structuralwisdom.com/Anatomy_Train_Lines.html

When you look at the second image, which is the superficial back line you can see that the muscles at the bottom of the feet are connected to the calf muscles, then hamstrings, then up the back all the way onto the head!

Now it may make more sense that if you have a dancer who perhaps is a teenager, awkward about their posture, slumping slightly with a forward head – that the tightness in the fascia of her neck might influence her hamstring flexibility! Conversely, I’ve had dancers who work SO hard at standing up straight that they give themselves a stiffened spine – tightening the fascia in that area – which can influence their hamstring or calf flexibility! We aren’t trained to think of these other areas away from our intended stretching as impediments to our flexibility – but they might be.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all go out and find a qualified myofascial massage therapist (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea☺), what I am suggesting is that if you aren’t getting the results that you want from your stretching you need to look at other areas of the body that are tight that may be influencing your muscles.

For example, let’s talk about hamstrings. For years now I have been introducing pinkie ball work to my students. Before I let them put the pinkie ball under their hamstrings to loosen them up I ask them to stand up, roll all the way over easily and compare how the two hamstrings feel. If one feels tighter, then they put the pinkie ball underneath their foot as they are standing and roll their foot on the pinkie ball. They are releasing the plantar fascia and massage the muscles of the feet. We do this only for a minute or two and then I have them roll back over to see how their hamstrings feel.

Typically, 75% of the students say that they felt the hamstring loosen up on the side they used the pinkie ball on! That’s pretty exciting! Then I go into talking about how they have a fascial band that goes from the bottom of their foot up to their head. (Remember the diagram?)

You could also try releasing the fascia closer to the top of the line. Round forward again so you can sense the difference in tension between your 2 legs. Let’s say your right hamstrings or calf felt tighter. Stand back up and take your left hand and place your fingers on the right side of your neck and massage gently where the muscles meet the base of the head as well as along the right side of the neck down to your right shoulder. Spend 30 seconds to a minute gently massaging this area. It should feel good – if it doesn’t you’re probably massage too hard! Now round back over again and see if you feel a difference in your legs.

If you do – then it is worth making time for either pinkie ball work or some other form of self-massage and then evaluating how your flexibility is improving with this additional focus. I’m not saying to stop doing more traditional hamstring or calf stretching – but if your stretching isn’t giving you the results you want, it’s useful to try a few other ways to see if your results change.

After all – you are smart dancers….

Signing off from another Dancing Smart Newsletter!

Warm regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

‘Center’ strength for young dancers

I’m a captain of my school dance team and our younger girls seem to be lacking in mainly knowing their center, their strength there and how to hold it (as well as their strength in general). I was wondering if you know of any exercises that could help?

Thanks, Rebecca

Great question, Rebecca! And a very hard one to answer. There are many abdominal strengtheners that are out there for you to do as a part of your training of your younger members. Exercises such as leg lowering, or physioball situps, even the regular ‘crunches’ will help to develop strength to the abdominal muscles. What they don’t do though, is help to train the young dancer on standing and moving from a powerful core. That requires that they learn how to move in good alignment and at their full height.

Here’s a few tips to help them explore what that feels like.

The simplest and quickest cuing I’ve found to get someone to lengthen their spine is to place their own hand on top of their head (right in the middle, not by their forehead or at the very back) – and then ask them to lengthen upwards into their hand. Watch them lengthen their spine and then ask them to keep that length as they move.

You’ll need a theraband for the next of tips – it doesn’t matter whether it is a stronger or lighter strength. Take the theraband and place one end under a foot (only 1 -not both) and the other end in the same hand. Grasp along the theraband so as you bend your arm and get tall at the same time – there is a light pull on the theraband. Feel how the abdominals are engaged – not in an aggressive fashion – but in a long and firm fashion. Do a demi plié on one leg keeping a light pull on the theraband.

Now transfer the theraband to your other hand so you have a diagonal pull and again notice how that wakes up your middle area as you align your body and do a few demi pliés on one leg. Then put the theraband under the other foot and do the same thing again, first using the same arm as leg before switching hands.

Another easy exploration is to take the theraband in each hand and gently pull your hands away from each other as if you were going to open to second position with your arms (to the side) now keeping a small pull walk, gallop, skip, or move in anyway you’d like. In order to keep that gentle pull between your arms you will have to engage your core as you move.

These tips will help to teach a dancer what it feels like when they are using their core. It takes strength to stabilize a properly aligned body – and my college students have often had ‘aha’ moments after trying these exercises. I’ve even put loops in one end of a theraband and put their foot in that – and then putting the other end of the theraband in either hand – had them explore how many ways they could move keeping tension on the band. That is a fun exploration!

Once they have the idea that alignment and core strength go hand in hand – I think whatever they do to physically strengthen their core will have a much better chance of being used as they are moving.

I know they are lucky to have you as their dance captain!

Warm regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”


Hyper-flexible back!

It was brought to my attention that some of you were receiving blank emails when I was sending out the notice of another newsletter being posted. I have hopefully resolved this issue! I appreciate those who took the time to let me know all was not right!

Here’s the Q&A for today.

Deborah, I have been thrilled to find your web site, thank you, thank you! My question- I have an advanced male student who was a former gymnast. His hyper-flexible back and anterior pelvic tilt leave him loose and improperly aligned in his movement. His entire mid section, ribs, abdominals and spine are too flexible and unstable for classical ballet. Since he has been performing more and training less, I have noticed it getting worse and want to give him a workout to do outside of the classroom. I would love your input on specific exercises to teach his core muscles control and stability. I know that crunches and sit-ups are not the answer.

Great question! It is so true that simply doing crunches and sit-ups in the normal way won’t give you the functional control that dancers need. I’ve got a few suggestions for your loosey-goosey gymnast.

There are a few tweaks we can give to the traditional exercises, which will pack a lot more punch for the time spent. I’m going to suggest that your dancer purchase a big physioball to work with, although I will also give you ways to do these without a physioball.

Physioball sit-ups
Begin by sitting on the physioball and slowly walk your feet away from the ball until your lower and middle back is resting on the ball. (you are arching back over the ball as in a bridge position) Clasp your hands behind your head, keeping your elbows out to the side as you slowly do a sit-up, keeping your lower back on the ball and your feet secure on the floor or even with your feet on the floor and toes touching a wall so they don’t slide. Exhale while doing the half sit-up.

You are going from an arched position to a contracted one. This is more challenging than going from a neutral position of lying flat on the floor to the half sit-up position. A variation without the physioball would be to rest on the bed with your knees bent and just the shoulder blades, shoulders and head hanging off the bed. Then slowly exhale as you do your half sit-up. You could do that with your legs straight, but only if you don’t have tight hip flexors.

Leg Lowering
You’ll begin lying on your back with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor with your spine lengthened and at rest. Deepening in the front of the hip joint, softly flex at the hips and lift each foot off the ground without tucking your pelvis under or pushing your low back against the floor. This will be your starting position.

You are doing a variation of leg lowering that will teach you to use the abdominals to stabilize your movement. Keeping the knee bent, slowly take one leg away from your chest, keeping the lower leg parallel to the floor. You are going to monitor your low back and stop when your low back starts to arch away from the floor. Bring that leg back in towards your chest as you switch legs and begin to extend the other leg away from your body. When you first begin to do this exercise your legs won’t travel very far away from your body. As you develop the core strength of the deeper abdominal muscles you will be able to extend your legs all the way to straight.

I want to emphasize that you must set up the abdominals before you ever move a muscle Think of the bellybutton being drawn to the back of the spine, or the abdominal area having one of those girdle supports that employees wear to lift heavy objects. The focus is on maintaining your support and control – not simply engaging at the point when you start to feel your pelvis tipping.

Alternate your legs as slowly as you need to be able to maintain that support. If you want to work harder, don’t bring your knee back as far towards your chest. This will load your abdominal muscles keeping them at a higher engagement level. Remember, when you use those deep abdominals it means that you will have a sense of engagement even when you are inhaling, but you will need to keep breathing! Too many dancers forget to breath when they are using their abdominals – definitely a bad habit!

Pelvis tipping forward
Even though dancers can have a lot of flexibility in their legs and back, they can also have tight hip flexors that pull the pelvis down in front giving the back that arched look. So let’s talk about how a tight iliopsoas muscle can influence your abdominal usage. We know that the iliopsoas muscle is a major postural muscle. It attaches from the middle area of the spine (T-12) and at the lesser trochanter of the femur (at the inside top of the femur, close to the groin.) The deeper muscles are in the body, the more they influence the alignment of the bones. The iliopsoas muscle, when it is overly tight, will pull the low back into a swayback. You could do 50 sit ups a day to strengthen your abdominal muscles, and stand up and still look like you had weak abdominals. So, the first step is to make sure that your iliopsoas muscle is stretched and has enough flexibility that when you are standing there is not a pull on the low back. Then the abdominal muscles have a chance to do their job of keeping the pelvic bowl upright which allows the weight of the upper body to transfer correctly down the spine onto the back of the pelvis and through to the legs in standing or the ischial tuberosities or sitting bones when sitting. One of the simplest way to stretch the iliopsoas muscle is by doing the runners lunge stretch.

I’ll end with a quote from Ted Shawn. “Dance is the only art in which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.”

Until next time,
Warm regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”